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The method of choice for the development of new vaccines is to target distinct dendritic cell subsets with antigen in vivo and to harness their function in situ to enhance cell-mediated immunity or induce tolerance to specific antigens. The innate functions of dendritic cells themselves may also be targeted by inhibitors or activators that would target a specific function such as interferon production, potentially important in autoimmune disease and chronic viral infections. Importantly targeting dendritic cells requires detailed knowledge of both the surface phenotype and function of each dendritic cell subset, including how they may respond to different types of vaccine adjuvants, their ability to produce soluble mediators and to process and present antigens and induce priming of naive T cells. This review summarizes our knowledge of the functional attributes of the human dendritic cell subsets in the steady state and upon activation and their roles in human disease.